Dear Margaret, I’m Addicted to Nicotiana. Send Help.

Dear Margaret,

Just the other day, I was walking in the sunshine, music playing through the buds stuck in my ears, when the song, “You Are My Sister” came on. As Antony Hegarty’s melodic and impossibly high-pitched voice filled my head I thought back to when we first “met” and how we bonded very quickly over a mutual affection for this album. Immediately my mind took me back to late summer when we met in person for the first time. There I was again, driving up to your place in the rental car, a canopy of tall trees shading us from above; you standing at the gate, that familiar green and red house behind you, the garden surrounding us all. And then, jumping further ahead again, my mind made a b-line to the nicotiana.

Dear Margaret: Those two words are how each “letter” in this series of letters to my friend Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden begins. This is letter number thr. To backtrack, see letters one and two. Margaret’s most recent letter to me is here.

When it comes to gardening I love practically every thing and every plant (except those that bore me so vehemently that the feeling is almost too strong to be apathy). My eyes are covetous; I must have it all. I must grow everything. Clearly, this is an unreasonable state of being. Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), there are obstacles in life that keep this in check. There are only so many hours in the day and things that need attending to. My garden is small. My wallet is even smaller.

So, here’s what I do, how I manage this madness: I avoid certain groupings of plants, specific genera (plural for genus). And I don’t just ignore them; I put them out of my mind entirely. I practice an artform that I happen to excel at, one which I call, Seeing without Seeing. For example, for a very long time I told myself, “No big-leaved tropicals.” I would walk into stores and my eyes glazed over them. When I did see them, they were an abstraction. I thought of them as big trees; something wild and free, not something to tame in a pot or bring indoors. It went on like this for years and I did not grow any. Not even one. Out of sight, out of mind. But then I went to Cuba. Twice. [A lush and mountainous part, not an open, sandy beach part.] And then I spent a month in the Caribbean, including three weeks in Dominica where you have to work to make things NOT grow, the tropicals reach super-sized, prehistoric proportions, and it seems like everyone has their own chocolate tree. I started to fantasize that I could have one, too. That was followed some time later by ten days in Thailand where everything is BIG and FABULOUS, including the plants (and the jet-lag), and the next thing you know I have purchased a banana tree.

My resolve had been broken.

There was no stopping me once Pandora’s Box was cracked open. Soon I found myself slogging my way down the street with my arms full of leafy tropicals: colocasias and another banana that I found on sale. But, but… they were so cheap! They were soon followed by two more bananas and a few more colocasias and the next thing I knew I had five bananas and an army of big-leaved tropicals and it was fall, the frost was approaching and now what had I got myself into?

Take this story, replace it with nicotiana, and you’ll where I am headed. I love nicotiana. Their beautiful, sticky, big leaves; the flowers with their graceful, tubular throats, and when they have a scent, it is intoxicating. Unlike big-leaved tropicals, I have allowed myself to dip into this world of flowering tobacco plants, albeit with restraint. Many years back, I grew the green-flowered, Nicotiana langsdorfii. I believe it may have been the first green flower I ever grew. I bought the seeds on eBay (of all places). For some reason it did not distribute itself among the over wintering pots that comprised my roof garden as nicotiana is want to do, but its cousin — a white-flowering form (Nicotiana alata) with blooms that release their fragrance at night – sure as heck did. I’ll never forget the summer that those flowers attracted a hummingbird into my little garden in the sky. What a sight to see a bird so uncommon here, bzzzzing away, three flights above the city street! If I wasn’t hooked before, I was then – I brought a few seedlings with me when I moved and continue to grow its progeny at least a decade later.

In the years that followed, I purchased seed for two other nicotiana, neither of which I have been able to will myself to grow. One is a variegated form (I can not resist anything variegated) and the other is the super, mega-supreme Indian Peace Pipe (N. sylvestris) that sports clusters of dripping flowers on a 6ft plant. Where on earth would I even put this? Still, I got as far as acquiring the seed, but managed to keep the reigns secured on my Id.

I had been good (mostly) and feeling rather superior about it, too, until I saw the nicotiana in your garden. That’s where it all fell apart. Those plants! Like nothing I had seen before. I mean, they are, quite literally, like nothing that exists elsewhere, a unique blend of three varieties — N. mutabilis, N. sylvestris, and N. langsdorfii — plants that have been crossing and setting seed in your garden for so long that they have together forged something or things entirely new. I love the soft, blushing purples and the green flowers that are fluted, almost frilly around the edges. You plucked some seed for me from your plants and I took them home in a paper bag with the plan to scatter them nearer to the house, where they can come up this summer alongside my white N. alata, some distance from the tomatoes that grow in the back third or there-about of my narrow, urban bowling alley yard. I was long ago advised to keep nicotianas far away from tomatoes in the garden. They are closely related plants (its no wonder I love them. I can’t stay away from anything in the Solanaceae family) that tend to share a sensitivity to the same pests and disease.

That should have been enough: my white flowers and your marvelous mutants co-mingling to form something even newer still. But that box had been opened. The Id was out and it wanted more.

This spring you wrote a post about purchasing new nicotiana seed from Daggawalla, a small farm in Oregon. Oh my dear god, the varieties they have! You bought the 12 variety sampler pack, and while I did not go that far (only after willpower and reason was exerted) I still managed to step away from the computer having ordered two more packs. And then I went onto another site, Gardens North, with the expressed purpose of looking for hardy cacti seed. I didn’t find the cactus, but I did find two more nicotiana! [As an aside, Daggawalla offered the most personable customer service of any seed company I have ever purchased from.]

So after all of this, the question remains: Where will I put all of these plants? The answer is not in my garden. I can’t grow them all. The door has been opened and now it has to be shut a little bit. I will need to narrow it down to just a few for this growing season and put the remaining seed away for at least another year. Out of sight, out of mind. Either that, or convince my new neighbours to grow a few. Their yard is expansive for Toronto, sunny, and mostly uncultivated. Or perhaps, I could surreptitiously enlist their help by sneaking a pinch of seed just over the fence where I can still see the blooms when they come up. They won’t notice 4 to 7 foot-tall plants with massive, sticky leaves and robust clusters of colourful blooms.

You think?

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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6 thoughts on “Dear Margaret, I’m Addicted to Nicotiana. Send Help.

  1. Oh, dear, a communicable disease — Nicotiana-itis — and I have big-leaf-itis, too, of course. A severe case.

    I need to sow the seeds from Daggawalla but am out of room in my little makeshift propagator area for the moment. Soon.

    I suppose there are far worse things that we could be afflicted with…

    • I scatter these in the fall, either on the ground in the general area I want them to end up, or else in a half whiskey barrel full of soil that gets left in place all winter. They always come up for me the next spring and I can transplant them if needed. I’m in zone 8 and mine are blooming now, but the same method worked for me in zone 3b – just delayed a couple of months.

  2. I like Nicotiana in other people’s gardens but have little success in growing it in mine. It gets discimated by slugs, sometimes disappearing over night just after planting. I also struggle to germinate it but have learnt recently that I was probably giving it too much heat so have sown earlier this year with no propagator.

    I do like your letter writing idea – just need a letter writing buddy

  3. My favourite thing about Nicotiana is the fragrance. Definitely deserves a spot in the garden for that alone. Thanks Gayla for infecting me with hardy cactus and succulent-itis!

  4. I’m normally not a commenter, but nicotiana! My favorite in my garden has been “Tinkerbell”, such unusually colored little flowers, a kind of dark salmon purply tomatoey pink with a green center. I love the white scented ones too, and lagsdorfii. I don’t seem to get volunteer seedlings, maybe slugs are the problem, but the last couple of winters have been so mild here in oregon that they over wintered and re-grew in the spring, becoming a big bushy plant.

  5. I try to organize my garden “companion gardening style” I have plenty of room, are there any plants that I should keep these away from? My gut tell me tomatoes.

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